If We Were Birds Interview: Director Lee Conrads

Through the lens of Greek tragedy, If We Were Birds presents an unflinching commentary on contemporary war and its devastating aftermath, particularly for the women who become its victims.

20% Theatre Company is excited to present this beautiful, shocking and brutal new play by Erin Shields at Nimbus Theater September 13-27, 2014.  Before and during the run of this show, we will be giving you the chance to learn a little bit more about some of the artists involved in our production. In this interview, meet director Lee Conrads.

Director - Lee Conrads
Director – Lee Conrads


Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background? How/when/why did you get into theatre?

I did theater all through high school, but primarily as a costume designer. My senior year I (accidentally? — I’m a little fuzzy on how it actually happened) volunteered to direct a project for my theater class. I had never thought about being a director, but it was the most fun I’d ever had. At the time I was in the throes of college application season and pretty stressed about having no clue what I wanted to do with my life. The idea that I could be a director as a profession started to percolate and I think my 17-year old self is still a little shocked that it’s actually happening.

Have you worked with 20% Theatre Twin Cities in the past? How and in what capacity?

My very first interview for a theater job when I moved to Minneapolis was with 20% Theatre –and I got the best “no” I’ve ever gotten. From my interview, I was ultimately offered an ASM-ing position for The Children’s Hour at the JCC. But then I directed two monologues for The Naked I: Insides Out last winter, and got to hang out with Rapture, Blister, Burn as the house manager last spring.  To be directing is an absolute dream-come-true!

Tell us what originally drew you to the If We Were Birds script. Why did you want to direct it?

When I first read If We Were Birds, it felt like a play I had been looking for for a long time. I am really interested in telling stories that ask us — as audiences and artists — to sit with difficult situations and complex problems to which there are no easy answers, with the hope that that exposure makes us gentler, more empathetic and compassionate humans. But I also have an almost evangelical interest in classical and historical theater. Too often when those plays get produced they are put on a pedestal of “how theater used to be;” I’m really excited about finding ways to resurrect ancient (or even just old–this is as applicable to Ibsen and Shakespeare as it is to Classical drama) stories such that they have the same effect on modern audiences as they had on the audiences they were written for, without compromising the forms of their essential Classical-ness. It is incredibly rare to find a play that does both of those things. If We Were Birds is very special.

If We Were Birds is staged through the lens of Greek tragedy. 20% Theatre Company does not generally produce classical work. What makes If We Were Birds an exception or more relevant 20%’s mission?

The most common reaction to this play from reviews I have read of other productions of this play is that it is a “contemporary take on a classical tragedy,” but I think it’s actually the opposite. One of the most classical elements of this play is the Chorus, which Shields has populated with characters whose stories are informed by the experiences of women who have been the survivors of sexual violence as a weapon of war in contemporary conflicts.  By weaving together past & present and fiction & reality, particular through the Chorus, Shields makes it impossible to write off this story as archaic. Two of the conflicts she draws on have happened within my lifetime, and likely all of them within the lifetimes of our audiences. To me this play is so clearly a classical take on a contemporary tragedy.

Did you have a specific vision for your cast during the audition process? What purpose does the chorus serve?

It was really important to me — and also really important to Shields — that the Chorus represents as broad a swath of womanhood as possible. So it was really important to me that we have as diverse a cast as possible in terms of age, race, body shape, various presentations & experiences of feminity and womanhood as possible. It was also really important to me that the cast as a whole have good chemistry and feel like a group of people who would be able to would be able to collaborate well.

20% Theatre Company produces plays with heavy subject material and/or controversial subject matter. Are there specific trigger warnings we should make audience members aware of?


The worst case scenario is that this production causes any kind of harm; I think that is most likely in a situation in which someone comes to the production without knowing what they are getting themselves into and that experience is damaging to their mental health.

There is an enacted rape as well as graphic descriptions of violence–sexual and otherwise.

Shields never condones any of these acts–in fact, the play is really an 80-minute condemnation of them–but it is important to the storytelling that we look directly at the atrocities that are being discussed and face them head on. The production isn’t going to do anything to soften that, but I absolutely don’t want anyone to come to the experience unprepared.

What do you hope the audience will walk away from this production knowing, feeling, thinking, etc.?

One of the things I am really trying to let go as an artist is the idea that my art says something and my sucess lives or dies depending on whether the audience “got it.” There is a universe in which I am an insufferably didactic director and I don’t want to live there. So yes, there are some very specific things I am trying to say with this play (though some of it is also just me screaming into the void about injustice that I feel powerless to mitigate — there are ways in which this play is very cathartic) but it is far more important for me that the audience goes through the experience with us — with Philomela — and is forced to just sit with a terrible situation with no easy answers. And I hope that that experience makes all of us — audience & artists — more compassionate, more generous human beings.

What else do you do in the world, outside of theatre and/or working on this production?

Unfortunately, I am historically terrible at having a life outside of theater; I’m working on it. I do have a desk job as a “data-entry drone” that I am grateful for because it pays my bills. I was a history major in college, as well as a theater major, so I spend a fair amount of time being an insufferable know-it-all about historical matters. And I spent the month of June teaching backpacking to elementary and middle school girls at a summer camp in North Carolina. It was a blast so I am trying to remember to make time in my life for the outdoors.

What is your favorite thing about the Twin Cities?

I’m pretty sentimental about the skyline. Especially in the winter, when I am racing around — over scheduled & hating the weather — every once in a while a catch a glimpse of the skyline and maybe a really nice sunset and think, “wow, this is actually an incredible city.”

What is your favorite type of bird?

Probably the sparrow, less because of the actual bird and more because it is the central metaphor of one of my all time favorite books (go read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell). I think I am way more into metaphorical birds than actual birds.